Q&A with Tsedal Neeley

Technology and InnovationDEIDigital TransformationDiversity & CultureLeadershipBoard and CEO Advisory
min Interview
March 12, 2018
7 min
Technology and InnovationDEIDigital TransformationDiversity & CultureLeadershipBoard and CEO Advisory
Tsedal Neeley speaks about her research, challenges and benefits of global corporations and the role language should play in corporate partnerships.


An Interview with HBS Professor Tsedal Neeley on the Language of Global Success 

Tsedal Neeley is an associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, and the author of The Language of Global Success:  How a Common Tongue Transforms Multinational Organization. 

Q: How did you first become interested in the strategic use of language in organizations? 

The seed of my interest in the strategic use of language in global organizations was first planted some 16 years ago when I was a doctoral student at Stanford University where I was part of a team examining the cross-cultural experience of global teams at SAP, a German high-tech company. Without prompting, as many as 70 percent of the employees we interviewed in Germany, India, and the US attributed collaboration hardships of one sort or another to language. One of my first interviewees teared up when describing an ongoing feeling of being ostracized as a result of other team members' habitual switch to a foreign language. Others described their difficulty speaking the dominant language, and cited it as the primary source of isolation in their teams and organization. Many saw language differences as the most divisive aspect of their global teamwork. As soon as I left those interviews, I turned to the literature to help make sense of what I had heard. I found very little research that could explain the emotionally-charged and debilitating experiences these employees had recounted—a knowledge gap about one of the most fundamental means of communication for global workers. Since that first study, I have been motivated to go as deep and wide as I could to systematically study, develop interventions, and write about language and the pivotal role it plays in facilitating or inhibiting effective global collaboration. 

Q: Your new book tells the story of the Japanese-headquartered tech giant Rakuten, and CEO Hiroshi Mikitani's decision in March 2010 to mandate the use of English company-wide.  What led him to that decision? 

Mikitani was often dubbed the Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos of Japan for his prescience in seeing the changes technology would bring to commerce and for his business acumen. By 2010, Rakuten was a household name and Internet destination of choice for the majority of Japanese online shoppers—nearly 90 percent market share for the company domestically. Mikitani felt that the only way Rakuten could grow was to expand globally. Migrating to English would contribute to fast and direct communication—without the cumbersome time delays that translation incurred— and was the only way to integrate his business across multiple nations and insert his company effectively in non-Japanese markets. A common language was the only way to extend knowledge sharing across the organization's existing global operations, as well as those that would be newly and rapidly established in order to efficiently achieve business results. Since transforming into a global organization facilitated by a common language, the company has grown from having some 200 million users to 1.1 billion worldwide in 6 years. 

His decision to stipulate a common language is in step with nearly 60 percent of multinational organizations that have migrated officially to English for global work. The pressure to grow globally, as well as the mergers and acquisitions that often cross national and linguistic boundaries, drive organizations to find a common way to communicate. Translators and interpreters for everyday work relationships tend to be inadequate. Meetings between individuals who speak different languages that rely on translators can become cumbersome and unnecessarily lengthy. Likewise, translated documents often lose nuance and slow down transactions. The absence of a lingua franca makes it challenging for linguistically diverse, and usually geographically dispersed, employees to share knowledge and collaborate. It has been long established that global team members who do not share the same language struggle to convey tacit knowledge that will advance their organization's goals. Finally, when subsidiaries are unable to communicate with their headquarters in the same language, the organization can find it difficult and inefficient to communicate a shared mission and values. 

Q: I imagine many of Rakuten's native English speakers heard about this decision and immediately thought they were going to have it easy.  Was that the case, or did they face challenges with the transition, too? 

The native speakers in several of the US offices were ecstatic at first. My favorite response that encapsulates the sentiment in the US offices is "I've got that box checked." And, indeed, the US employees benefited tremendously from their native language becoming the official language of communication in the company.   

But, within two years into the language change, the native English speakers at Rakuten had a very different story to tell. American employees experienced culture shock because they became inundated with Rakuten's corporate culture, which was steeped in Japanese cultural traditions, as well as new demands from the Tokyo headquarters. The language barrier had shielded them from the Tokyo headquarters' frequent demands, but the lingua franca adoption enabled Japanese managers to develop sufficient fluency to translate materials into English that called for substantive changes. 

I call this phenomenon the Trojan Horse of Language. Like the enormous wooden horse that the ancient Greeks gifted the city of Troy that hid warriors who opened the city gates to the encroaching Greek army, the "gift" of English that the US employees greeted so ecstatically at the outset in fact carried something more difficult to fathom, namely, a foreign corporate culture. The US employees had thought that the English language mandate would westernize work practices and work values, that is, their native culture, but in reality English transmitted Rakuten's Japanese work practices and values. 

Q: You spent half a decade interviewing more than 600 Rakuten employees in eight countries, not to mention collecting survey data from over 3000 employees, and reviewing more than 20,000 pages of materials in the company archives.  What surprised you the most? 

I was surprised by the adeptness of the group of employees who were neither members of the HQs nor the US locations. This group worked in the company's foreign offices: Brazil, France, Germany, Indonesia, Taiwan, and Thailand. One might expect that those who had to shed their foundational languages and cultures would have experienced a double jeopardy. This group had the easier linguistic adjustment to English and the easier cultural adjustment to the Japanese ways ushered in by the language mandate, although they too had to master steep learning curves to gain higher language proficiency and engage in new culturally unfamiliar work practices. Once they overcame the frustrations of communicating and coordinating work across borders, they were surprisingly open and receptive to languages and cultural practices that were foreign to their locale, nationality, or identity. These attitudes, in my estimation, makes the employee group most likely to be effective for global organizations of the twenty-first century. I describe their attitude and behaviors in the book as Global Work Orientation. 

Q:  We have a number of articles this issue about corporate ecosystems – companies building relationships with other companies to get closer to the market or better serve their customers.  Should sharing a common language be a factor CEOs should consider when evaluating a potential ecosystem partner? 

I think it is important to understand if language is important for the critical tasks or the basic work that the organization must do well in order to create distinctive value for stakeholders. For example, to access global markets— and build accessible global brands— dispersed workers must be able to engage with external international partners and customers effectively. A common language makes it easier to synchronize services, helps accelerate the integration of new entities from different regions by helping achieve efficiency in migrating onto common platforms, sharing resources, strengthening internal communication, and fostering cohesion in with partner organization. 

Q: What are you researching next? 

I continue to tackle some of the many challenges that arise from managing and working in today's global workforce. I am currently focusing on the roles that global leaders play and the strategies they design to meet these challenges.